Jane Hirshfield


American Poet, Essayist and Translator, Zen Buddhist

Author Quotes

Poetry, and art in general, often counterbalance the main tenor of a culture. They carry different truths, as the Fool does in the court of a king. They puncture power and purpose?s narrowing of view. We lean towards the purposive and practical, not just as humans, but as mammals. Poetry reveals another set of values, which equally matter, and make life bearable in ways that it otherwise would not be. Kindness, astonishment, seeing the beauty in darkness and grief, seeing the darkness in beauty and joy, finding solace in the knowledge that you live a life others have also known. Utilitarianism alone is a cruel and strictured measure of a life.

The ability to name poetry's gestures and rhetorics isn't required to write or read them, any more than a painter needs to know the physics of color to bring forward a landscape. The eye and hand and ear know what they need to know. Some of us want to know more, because knowing pleases.

The secret of understanding poetry is to hear poetry's words as what they are: the full self's most intimate speech, half waking, half dream. You listen to a poem as you might listen to someone you love who tells you their truest day. Their words might weep, joke, whirl, leap. What's unspoken in the words will still be heard. It's also the way we listen to music: You don't look for extractable meaning, but to be moved.

This may explain why the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something ?breathed in.? We refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery and revelation. And however much we may come to believe that ?the real? is subjective and constructed, we sill feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if ?truth? is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.

When I began writing one of the essays in Nine Gates, "Poetry and the Mind of Indirection," I thought how odd it is that poetry seems to be a way of thinking circuitously; instead of simply saying "I'm sad," a poem describes rainfall or the droop of a branch. I thought this was a secondary way of thinking, almost the reverse of the direct knowledge of experience a person seeks in Zen meditation. But when I looked into it more deeply I found that traveling by language from self into the world is also a primary way humans understand experience. Language discovers and creates itself through metaphor, and through that process external and internal words reveal their interconnection. Metaphor isn't embellishment; its way of thinking came first and abstract thought arose later, along with literacy. And so what may appear to be indirection is in fact a fundamental way that we human beings understand our lives -- through language that emerges from the body, from the tastes and sensations and movements and gestures of our own bodies and from the body of the earth all around us. In poetry, as in Zen practice, experience comes first. My job as a human being as well as a writer is to feel as thoroughly as possible the experience that I am part of, and then press it a little further. To find out what happens if I ask, "What else, what next, what more, what deeper, what hidden?" And to keep pressing into that endless realm, in many different ways.

Zen is the taste of your own tongue in your own mouth. It?s a way to find something very simple that?s already present within you?a subtler, sharper, non-distanced, and non-distancing awareness. Everything else emerges from this intimacy with your own life, this opening into attention. We become the instruments of our lives and become part of the orchestra of the larger existences that our lives in turn are part of.

In order to gain anything, you must first lose everything

Let reason flow like water around a stone, the stone remains.

Over 19,000 haiku about Spam?Spamku?have to this date been posted online.

Poetry's task is to increase the available stock of reality, R P Blackmur said.

The Cloudy Vase: Past time, I threw the flowers out, washed out the cloudy vase. How easily the old clearness leapt, like a practiced tiger, back inside it.

The sympathy of a reader to a poem is not circumstantial, is not identity-based, is not any kind of simple allegiance. The sympathy that makes a reader feel ?ideal? is the sign, perhaps, of a shared hunger: for what can be tasted by certain words and their rhythms, and for some of the things words can carry. I am a vegetarian, and have been for over 40 years?yet John Berger?s description of the killing of a pig in a French village is for me transformative, real, and needed. Would he think of me when imagining his ideal reader? I suspect not.

Time... brings us everything we have and are, then comes with a back-loader and starts taking it all away.

When I write, I don't know what is going to emerge. I begin in a condition of complete unknowing, an utter nakedness of concept or goal. A word appears, another word appears, an image. It is a moving into mystery.

Zen pretty much comes down to three things -- everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.

I travel as much as I do. It isn't the life I expected. I don't know what dust of pollen will come back with me from these travels. But I must trust that I will not treat frivolously the glimpses I've been given into other places and others' lives.

In the dictionary of Cat, mercy is missing.

Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears Sleeping and waking, unfold itself inside your eyes Let its fierceness and tenderness hold you Let its vastness be undisguised in all your days.

Part of poetry's core activity, both within an individual and within a culture, is to attend to and make visible what Jung called the shadow life. Whatever it is that isn't being sufficiently attended to, poetry will be magnetically drawn toward. Perhaps these poems came to me because I hadn't been looking thoroughly enough at the activity of my own heart -- I had fallen asleep in a way, or had been looking overly outward. And certainly the heart is denigrated by our culture, which values the intellect and neglects the emotional, or cheapens it to the dulled formulas of mass media. Perhaps I was looking in those poems for a container of concentration and words with which to try to do better, to counteract that dulling, both inward and outward. It's also true that for some years a central task in my life has been to try to affirm the difficult parts of my experience; that attempt is what many of the heart poems address. It's easy to say yes to being happy, but it's harder to agree to grief and loss and transience and to the fact that desire is fathomless and ultimately unfillable. At some point I realized that you don't get a full human life if you try to cut off one end of it, that you need to agree to the entire experience, to the full spectrum of what happens.

Poetry's work is not simply the recording of inner or outer perception; it makes by words and music new possibilities of perceiving

The creative is always an act of recombination, with something added by new juxtaposition as making a spark requires two things struck together.

The thought that something we cannot see, of unsurpassable skill and unimaginable form, exists in the back room?s locked safe?isn?t this, for any artist, for any person, an irresistible hope, beautiful and disturbing as the distant baying of Thoreau?s lost hound that tells us, not least, that the mysteries of distance are endless?

Time-awareness does indeed watermark my books and my life.

When the body dies, where will they go, those migrant birds and prayer calls, as heat from sheets when taken from a dryer? With voices of the ones I loved, great loves and small loves, train wheels, crickets, clock-ticks, thunder ? where will they, when in fragrant, tumbled heat they also leave?

Zen taught me how to pay attention, how to delve, how to question and enter, how to stay with -- or at least want to try to stay with -- whatever is going on.

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American Poet, Essayist and Translator, Zen Buddhist